Is the DUP having cold feet over Brexit?

by Quentin Peel | 14.08.2018

In the chorus of condemnation from Brexiters about Theresa May’s Chequers’ proposal, one voice has been conspicuous by its absence. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 MPs prop up the Tory government, has been strangely silent.

Ever since the referendum, the DUP MPs have been vocal in backing a “hard” Brexit, meaning leaving the single market and any customs union. They have denounced fears about a return of a hard border with the Irish Republic as a “red herring” invented by Dublin and Brussels. So what explains their sudden hush?

The party founded by the Rev Ian Paisley in 1971 as the fundamentalist voice of Protestant loyalism to the UK is suddenly getting cold feet, according to close observers of Unionist politics in Northern Ireland. Brexit remains official DUP policy, but fear of the consequences of crashing out, for the economy and for the status of the inner-Irish border, not to mention relations with the rest of the UK, is growing.

Until now, Arlene Foster and the DUP leadership in Belfast, lacking the platform of Stormont because of the collapse of power-sharing with Sinn Fein, have allowed hardliners at Westminster such as Sammy Wilson, Brexit spokesman, and Ian Paisley junior (currently suspended from parliament and party membership over undeclared holidays in Sri Lanka) to take the lead on Brexit questions. No longer.

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There is a growing realisation among more pragmatic members of the party elected to the Stormont assembly that Brexit is a threat to the integrity of the UK itself – the absolute priority for the DUP – and to the prosperity of Northern Ireland. It has re-opened the question of a border referendum and thus the previously unthinkable issue of Irish unification. It has polarised the vote between Protestants and Catholics, with moderate unionists and republicans squeezed out. It has blocked attempts to revive power-sharing at Stormont between the DUP and Sinn Fein, preventing the province from arguing its case effectively in the negotiations with Brussels.

No member of the current DUP leadership has criticised Brexit publicly, but Peter Robinson, former DUP leader and First Minister, stirred up a furious internal debate by daring to suggest that Unionists must at least prepare for a border referendum on a united Ireland. He was denounced by Wilson for “inviting arsonists in to burn your house”.

The economy in the province is teetering on the brink of recession, with three quarters of negative growth out of the last four. The lack of a Stormont government is the prime reason, with many public spending plans on hold. But Brexit uncertainty compounds that by delaying business investment plans. Moreover, no one expects the DUP and Sinn Fein to be able to resolve their differences before Brexit is resolved one way or the other.

That means finding a solution that will keep an open and invisible Irish border, the biggest remaining obstacle to a Brexit deal. The easiest solution – proposed by Brussels – would be “regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Republic, with both sticking to EU rules. That is anathema to the DUP, because it would mean different rules for the province and the rest of the UK after Brexit. But May’s alternative Chequers proposal of UK-wide regulatory alignment for goods (not services), and the “facilitated customs arrangement” for the UK to collect tariffs for the EU, is rejected by both Brexiters and Brussels.

Something like the Chequers sort of fudged “soft Brexit” might well suit the more pragmatic wing of the DUP in Belfast, as long as it means no border in the Irish Sea. If there is no deal, or any form of Brexit requiring some sort of inner-Irish border, recent polls suggest it would increase support for Irish unification from moderate nationalists, centrists – and even some pro-Remain voters in the unionist camp.

For the first time in many decades, Irish unification is being talked about seriously. That is the most fearful unintended consequence of Brexit for the DUP. For them, saving the UK matters much more than Brexit.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

5 Responses to “Is the DUP having cold feet over Brexit?”

  • With the referendum now being seen to have been illegal, with public opinion shifting away from Brexit, the easiest way to solve many Brexit problems would be to abandon it completely and revert to the status quo ante.

  • In response to Peter Stevenson’s comment, I go along with adjectives such as ‘stupid’, ‘virtually unworkable’, ‘disatrous’ and ‘very, very flawed by lying and misleading Brextiteer campaigning’. But could he or someone define and explain ‘illegal’, please? Thanks in advance.

  • The Referendum is considerd Illegal because the Leave promoters deliberately mislead voters with lies and deceit to encourage them to vote leave. They quite deliberately engaged in criminal activities to massively overspend on the agreed budgce et for electioneering and because there is strong evidence to prove that a foreign government, Russia helped fund the leave campaign and used trolls to further influence voting patterns. That should do for starters

  • It’s also “illegal” in the sense that the government deliberately represented it to be advisory before the event, but then declared it binding afterwards. Its status was never properly clarified. Had it been binding, it would surely have required a super majority to effect such massive constitutional change.